F. W. Murnau Comes to America
The German Genius of the Films Talks of Movies and Men
Author: Matthew Josephson
(Motion Picture Classic: October, 1926)
“Simplicity! Greater and greater simplicity – that will be the key-note of the new films.”
Murnau was speaking with ardour, gesticulating with his long limbs, whenever his English, altho (sic) correct and without foreign accent, failed him.
“Our whole effort,” he went on, “ must be bent toward ridding motion pictures of all that does not belong to them, of all that is unnecessary and trivial and drawn from other sources – all the tricks, gags, ‘business’ not of the cinema, but of the stage, and the written book. That is what has been accomplished when certain films reached the level of great art. That is what I tried to do in The Last Laugh. We must try for more and more simplicity and devotion to pure motion picture technique and material.”
Exactly what I had longed to hear someone say here. Exactly what I hoped this giant of the moving pictures would say. But then Murnau went on to say something which gives his own spirit and personal style completely. Listen:
“In the film you give a picture, for instance, of an object, a thing, and it has drama for the eye; because of the way it has been places, or photographed, because of its relation to the other people or things in this film, it carries on the melody of the film.”
This is Murnau, the man who created the most vivid drama we have ever seen out of the simplest and lowliest things in The Last Laugh; who made brass instruments ring with music on the screen, or lit up faces so that they were loud with speech; probably the finest director who has come to us from Germany.
His Influence is Felt
What will his influence be here, I wondered? It has been very great already. It is not as if we have been backward, for in the last year or two a number of film masterpieces made by American or American-trained directors follow the same tendencies of those of Murnau. They are simple to the utmost and build solidly on the resources of the cinema – pictures like Vidor’s The Big Parade, Cruze’s Covered Wagon, Henry King’s Stella Dallas, And yet there are people who grumble at the inroads of foreign film stars and directors. How silly! If they could only see the mountains of inferior American celluloid that are shipped to foreign countries and blissfully consumed by the populace.
W. Murnau arrives at exactly the psychological moment, as we are on the verge of an era of truly great pictures. In his valise he brought with him a new epoch-making film, Faust, which is to have its first showing in America. At the very moment, Variety, a seriously inspired German picture, was playing to filled houses with the temperature at ninety. He is deeply interested in America; he has few false ideas about it, least of all that it is impossible to do anything fine over here. And he is here at the behest of the Fox Film Company, seldom noted hitherto for artistic films, but now going in for bigger things.
He is not merely a giant of the films as I have described him, but in stature towers some six feet and several inches. He is red haired; he has keen, steady eyes and quiet hands. He is a calm man, not easily ruffled or thrown into despair. His manner is unconventional, not at all formal or formidable as that of many Europeans. He is young, not much over thirty-five; his understanding and his knowledge are broad. I think that his abilities will make him respected, and his quiet, personal charm (so happily lacking in useless “temperament”) will make him liked.
Murnau was born of good family in a small town of Westphalia. He was well educated. He became interested in the theatre a few years before the war, at a time when great things were being done in the theatre by men like Gordon Craig, Max Reinhardt and Granville Barker. He worked under the wing of Max Reinhardt as an actor and stage director in the world famous Grosses Schauspielhaus of Berlin. He was doing small things, but learning much under the brilliant Reinhardt, whose production, The Miracle, has thrilled so many thousands of Americans. Another young German was working quietly with Murnau under Reinhardt. They became friends, and were destined to become masters of a new art. The other young fellow’s name was Ernst Lubitsch.
When the Great War came, young Murnau found himself in the first line of infantry, in the Royal Guards. Then for a year he was an officer in the aviation corps. Like many of us, he was glad when it was all over, and turned from the art of the theatre to the budding motion picture industry.
Some of the most famous German actors, Emil Jannings, Werner Krauss, Paul Wegener, went into motion pictures.
Few Good Ones in Germany
We talked about the German situation. What Murnau said will surprise many people.
“Contrary to the impression prevailing here, very few good pictures are being made in Germany. There are few good directors or actors; there are few people who know anything about the cinema. The big companies are loaded with deadwood, sheep. They follow the tide, just as it is followed here. When an interesting experiment turns out to be a hit, as Caligari did over there, they all imitate it. Or Variety. They are all doing circus pictures now. Those who have really been doing things, the talented, far-sighted men, have simply been feeling their way along. The artists who made Caligari had no idea when they started out what their results would be. And yet they discovered some wonderful things, they were pioneers.”
“Too much influence of the modern stage,” I suggested.
“Exactly. I have had to forget everything I learned about the stage. We have had to throw overboard everything that suggests the theatre.”
Here, Murnau spoke with utmost feeling and reverence for Max Reinhardt.
“I feel unbounded admiration for him. He knows more about the theatre than anybody living. I can never tell in words how much association with him meant to me. He seems to know everything, follow everything. He was the most inspiring of men to work under. He is an old man now and very tired; but he is deeply interested in what we are doing on the screen. What we need is a Max Reinhardt of the cinema.”
“Most of the film stars of Europe, like Jannings, come from the stage?” I asked.
“Yes, but that isn’t necessary,” said Murnau. “We don’t need trained stage actors for the movies. There is splendid material everywhere which directors must take over and mold for the purposes of film.”
Like most of the fine German directors, Murnau has a passion for perfecting each detail of his picture. That is one of the distinguishing features of the better importations. In a pinch, Murnau told me, he would rather have a raw, untrained person, who had never played before, than a seasoned star.
Working over his last picture, Faust, he searched for many months before he found a young female apparition who suited the part of Gretchen; she is the beautiful Camilla Horn, a discovery he is particularly proud of. Her face had just the degree of innocence and child-like beauty he wanted. What a search it must have been in those times?
“In that way,” said Murnau, “I get exactly the effect, the feeling I want into the picture. For the character of Faust I found a truly old man, a Swede, Gösta Ekman, who had seldom played before on the screen.”
High Praise for Jannings
“But Jannings is an amazing screen actor,” I said.
“Yes, one of the finest in the world, and a dear friend of mine. Do not misunderstand me. Few people really know how to play before the camera. Jannings is superb before it. The secret of his power is that he uses his whole body for suggestion. He is like this – (Murnau was puffing out his chest and throwing up his shoulders) big as a mountain when playing a king. And when he is a clown or a beggar, he is able to shrink and quiver like the lowest toad. He is absolutely unique. But generally we can train players ourselves.”
Murnau is convinced that there is great material for the screen here to work with in his own way. To find new “types” fills him with pleasure. What a chance for some of our film-struck children! Perhaps new life for some of our fading stars, even under the whip of a brilliant directorial genius, as Irene Rich, for instance, was glorified again under Lubitsch in Lady Windermere.
The first picture he will work on will be based on A Trip to Tilsit, a novel by the daring of Herman Sudermann, with many interesting situations. This will be done for Fox. Murnau should distinguish himself; everything he does will have his own stamp, his own touch.
Screen authorities, who seldom come near being in agreement, were almost unanimous in pronouncing The Last Laugh the “greatest film ever made.” Credit for this and for Jannings’ superb acting belong almost wholly with Murnau. He spoke of it with unconscious pride.
Talks of The Last Laugh
“I wanted to try a story that you could really tell in five words, an exceedingly simple idea or situation; but the range, the feeling of the film which gave this story was to be limitless in its power of understanding and dramatizing ideas. You can tell the story of The Last Laugh in a sentence, but I wanted the emotions of its central character to become something beyond the power of words to express. I wanted the camera to picture shades of feeling that were totally new and unexpected; in all of us there is a self-conscious self which in a crisis may break out in the strangest ways, and this picture at times reached the subconscious man under his hotel livery.
“The whole action of the thing pointed, for instance to the moment where Jannings takes off his hotel uniform, so that as he removed the coat with its brass buttons the highest point of the drama was reached, a drama that was purely visual. The type of lighting and architecture we used helped a great deal toward this effect; everything superfluous that did not help to carry on the main idea was suppressed and thrown out of the picture.”
For his work here Murnau has brought over his own architect, a young man named Rochus Gliese, who has collaborated with him in several pictures towards getting the tripled intensity and directness that he goes for.
Faust, the large feature film over which Murnau has been working for several years, is to be distributed by Metro-Goldwyn soon. It differs widely from The Last Laugh. It may be another milestone in the progress of cinema. For one thing, it is drenched with atmosphere and color. It has been justly heralded as having the most beautiful photography. Murnau has handled his camera as if it were a great Renaissance painter, a Leonardo or an El Greco. For another thing, it is a great story, a universal theme, handled with great originality.
Every red-blooded German has had a yearning to do Faust. It is part of the native atmosphere; it is somewhere in the flavor of the good beer every German drinks. It is the rollicking legend of a bright, bold, bad man carrying out all his wicked dreams, that has gripped the imagination for centuries. Those who know their Goethe, or the opera of Faust, will find that Murnau has gone back to the original sources of the legend to create something particularly for the cinema.
“In this film,” he said, “what interested me most was the relation between each scene or sequence. Every single shot has an inevitable part in the movement of the whole picture.”
We were driving down-town now, toward lunches, banquets, greetings of the Mayor.
Issuing from the quiet, middle-class halls of the great hostelry on Fifth Avenue where Murnau seemed such an odd if good-humored-looking giant, he had shown only a single flash of temperament. This was his demand for a certain luxurious make of American car such as he owned in Berlin. We suggested that it must only be made in Germany.
We still talked movies. His views were of unfailing interest.
Of Pictures and People
What did he think of Variety – the hit of the moment, to the happy surprise of all?
“Beautifully done. Photography, playing, direction. The vaudeville stuff is delightful. It was really planned with the hope of an American success, and I am very happy that it is going so well. Not because it is a German film. I don’t really think that it marked a step forward for the cinema. But it will improve the taste of the public, arouse them and interest them in this type of work.”
Caligari? “It was frankly an experiment. It was aufregend (stimulating), aroused wider interest in motion pictures, showed what might be done.”
Lubitsch? “A brilliant man. A most interesting director. But I don’t think he has entirely cast off the influence of the stage that we both got under Max Reinhardt. Many of his films give you the feeling of watching action on stage.”
Chaplin? “The genius of the screen. His comedies have the most profound appeal. He is always doing something absolutely fresh and unconscious. There were thing in The Gold Rush that were revelations, he a fountain of cinematic ideas. A Woman of Paris was extremely interesting; but, of course, it was in the European tradition.”
That reminded me of something I had almost passed up.
“And what do you think of – of – America? I really had to squeeze that in, you know?”
“Thoroly exciting (sic),” he laughed. “My second visit, you know, but I am like a child about it. There are wonderful types here, wonderful faces. Tremendous energy. The whole tradition here suggests speed, lightness, wild rhythms. Everything is novel. Sensational. I was in Childs’ Restaurant last night. It was an amazing place to me. Tonight I am going to Coney Island. It must be barbarous there. I would like to do a wild picture about Alaska. What was the book they were considering? Something like Frozen Nights or Frozen Lights. It has wonderful possibilities. Wonderful. Wonderful…” he murmured as he drove on along the winding road that led thru banquets, receptions, Coney Island, to Hollywood, ultimately.
 Der Letzte Mann/The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1924), a film best remembered for not using intertitles for dialogue.
 Varieté/Variety (E. A Dupont, 1925).
 Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari/The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
 Reinhardt was actually only fifty-three at the time this interview was first published.
 Not exactly true. Ekman had already appeared in eleven films during the 1920s alone prior to Faust, and had the lead role in a number of them.
 Lady Windermere’s Fan (Ernst Lubitsch, 1925)
 This would be filmed under the title Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927)
 A short story, not a novel.
 The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925)
 A Woman of Paris (Charles Chaplin, 1923). Chaplin appears only in a cameo role in this film.